February 22, 1972: Terrorists hijack flight and demand ransom in Yemen

On February 22, 1972 the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked a Lufthansa flight and demanded a $5 million ransom.

ADEN, YEMEN – The cardinal rule of dealing with terrorists who take hostages is not to pay ransom: unfortunately, governments have to manage these situations, not high-ranking Catholic priests.

Rules are funny things, aren’t they? Sometimes they make a lot of sense as they are based on experience or lessons learned from similar situations in the past. Some are even rolled into laws such that any person who breaks them runs the risk of a fine – or worse.

At other times they are ok to ignore in given situations. Telling the difference between the two is not always easy and whatever decision you make – abide by the decree or ignore it – you can bet the mortgage you will be subject to armchair quarterbacking immediately afterwards.

Then there are what we call ‘cardinal rules‘. These are defined as “the most important ones”, the ones you CANNOT disobey. As if there is a hierarchy for what we should and should not do.

Take hostage incidents for example. EVERYONE knows that states or individuals should NEVER pay ransom: this only encourages more hostage takings and rewards illegal behaviour. But what if there is no choice?

On this day in 1972

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terrorist group hijacked Lufthansa flight 649 after takeoff from Delhi on a Tokyo to Frankfurt flight. After landing in Aden (Yemen) the five assailants armed with guns and explosives demanded $5 million in ransom: if not received they vowed to blow up the plane. To show their ‘good faith’ the hijackers released all the women and children as well as one female flight attendant. One of the remaining hostages was Joseph Kennedy, son of deceased US Senator Robert Kennedy (assassinated by a Palestinian in 1968).

I do not think the plane was hijacked because of me. I was not certain I was going to be aboard.

Joseph Kennedy

In the end the German government paid the money and the passengers were released. The terrorists surrendered to Yemeni authorities but were never arrested or charged (rumours abounded that they gave local officials $1 million of their ill-gotten booty). I guess no one thought to ask what German Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) thought.

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By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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